Just Another Aisle in America

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The British columnist Peter Hitchens recently commented on the phenomenon of “crunchy conservatism,” for which, he said, he “had a lot of time.” And so do I. I just finished reading Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons, which was quite good. The subtitle is a bit more descriptive and helpful–“The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots.”

In saying that it was quite good, I do not mean to say that I agreed at all points, but I do mean to say that Dreher has opened a discussion that is well worth having. He is self-consciously trying to call the conservative movement back to its Burkean past, listening to and heeding men like Russell Kirk, Wendell Berry, G.K. Chesterton, and others. This would be in contrast the money, money, money approach of many who call themselves conservatives.

Some of his chapters were magnificent. Some articulated a principle we need to recover, but in my view misapplied them. Some raised questions that need answers, but Dreher did not fully develop the answers one way or the other. And in some places, I think that Dreher simply misses the fact that the “alternative counterculture lifestyle” is just another aisle in that big box store that we affectionately call America. I would like to work my way through this book chapter by chapter in what I would describe as a respectful critique. Taking one thing with another, I would much rather try to work with what Dreher proposes than what is currently being served up by the mandarins of the contemporary conservative movement.

In the preface to the paperback edition, Dreher says this:

“Though we will always have the necessary fights over the usual stuff of modern politics, there’s a growing awareness among the most creative thinkers on the right that in our eagerness to fight the culture-war clashes, we have neglected the slow, patient work of building local institutions and relationships that help people resist the disorders of the age” (p. xii).

This is dead center on, and it represents why this book is so important. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. When you bring things down to the local level, you will eventually find yourself in conflicts with friends and neighbors, and will discover that all politics is personal. In this age of high tech and nation-wide political machinery, we have sought to hide this fact from ourselves . . . but direct mail politics is the equivalent of bombing the enemy from thirty thousand feet.

Dreher’s journey into crunchyism began, not surprisingly, with food, during which pilgrimage he discovered that cauliflower was more than a “delivery platform for ranch dip and cheese sauce.” In fact, the book might be described as a broad cultural apologia from a Republican writer and thinker who began shopping at the Food Coop, and who then discovered some other stuff. And this beginning also displays one of Dreher’s strengths — he knows exactly how goofy some of this stuff looks to the outsider, and he is adept in disarming all such objections.

“Here’s the thing: we didn’t turn into droopy, pale-skinned dullards who washed down our nightly tofu with wheatgrass juice. My wife and I are still enthusiastic eaters of meat and drinkers of wine — maybe more so now that when we first met. We discovered early in our marriage that both of us had grown up in a time and place in which cooking was seen primarily as a chore, and food as ballast” (p. 9).

He is also great at diagnosis. Here’s what ails ya.

“It seems to crunchy cons that most Americans are so busy bargain shopping or bed hopping, or talking about their shopping and screwing selves, that they’re missing the point of life. Sex and commerce are fine things, but man cannot live by Viagra and Dow Jones alone. A life led collecting things and experiences in pursuit of happiness is not necessarily a bad life, but it is not a good life either. Too often, the Democrats act like the Party of Lust, and the Republicans the Party of Greed” (p. 12).

Dreher is really strong in describing some of the soul-wasting assumptions that are frequently found on America’s right wing. But the solution, whatever it is, will still not be imposed from the top down, even if there are local and personal reasons for thinking that “there ought to be a law.” And in addition, there are a multitude of statist restrictions and regulations (by definition applied from the top) that will impede the restoration of sanity in our local communities. In short, the solution is going to be found in worship of the triune God — no baals can deliver us. Not the home-grown organic local baals, and not the nationalist Baal of war, commerce and empire. I believe that Dreher would agree with this, but in the course of this review I want to push it a good deal further than I believe he does.

“This is not to encourage a head-for-the-hills utopianism (though sometimes the hills do start to look pretty inviting), but rather a movement to change our own lifestyles so that they are more faithful to our convictions as conservatives, and over time rebuild the strength and stability of our communities, our schools, our churches, and all the ‘little platoons’ that Edmund Burke identified as necessary to civil life” (p. 23).

This is all very good, but it brings the central question I have about this book to the forefront. As we are investing ourselves in Burke’s little platoons, what are we willing to make other people do, and why? This is the question underneath all matters of law and justice, and answering it will tell us how to take and apply this book. Eating free range chicken for dinner and supporting legislation that will restrict carbon emissions (to prevent 2017’s laughing-stock, global warming) may seem like different aspects of the same worldview. But they are not at all. The first is a personal choice in a free country, and the second is bad coercive law based on bad science, in what is decreasingly a free country. The former feeds the mouths of your family and the latter feeds the maw of the state.

All this said, I enjoyed this book greatly, and hope that the questions it raises will be as profitable in this series of reviews as they were for me in the book itself.

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